Professor Money, God, and the First Book Published in Los Angeles (Maybe)

Los Angeles Star
Los Angeles Star, by klxadm | Photo: Courtesy USC Libraries

"San Francisco had its Philosopher Pickett, its Emperor Norton and a host of others of like ilk," wrote James M. Guinn in the 1902 annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Los Angeles had representatives of this class in its early days, but unfortunately the memory of but few of them has been salted down in the brine of history."

Guinn fished out of history's pickling barrel one notable Los Angeles character from the mid-19th century in whom eccentricity and enterprise were strangely blended. He might be described as the founding father of "kooky LA." His name was William Money. He insisted that the name be pronounced "Moe-NAY." Or maybe it was "Moe-NEE."

"By a singular circumstance," he said of his birth in 1807, "I was born with four teeth and the likeness of a rainbow in my right eye," as well as a caul, all of which guaranteed mystical powers.

According to Cecilia Rasmussen, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2004, Money got the word to go west from Jesus himself while standing on a New York street corner.

He may also have published in 1854 the first English-language book printed in Los Angeles, but the priority of his claim is disputed. Other sources say that Horace Bell's Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, published in 1881, was the first book to be printed in Los Angeles.

If Money's book was first, it was a peculiar achievement. As a review in The Southern Californian in 1854 put it, "We are in luck this week, having been the recipients of a very interesting literary production entitled, Reform of the New Testament Church by William Money, Bishop, Deacon and Defender of the Faith ... . We pronounce it a work worthy of all dignified admiration," the newspaper reviewer said with a wink and "a reform which ecclesiastics and civil authorities have not been able to comply with yet."

Perhaps because they hadn't yet read Money's book. "From the foregoing, our readers can form an idea of this great work," concluded the reviewer. "It forms a volume of twenty-two pages, printed in English and Spanish, with notes, etc.; price not yet determined. We would advise all to procure a copy, as there being no stereotype edition, the present few numbers will end the supply."

Fortunately, the Huntington Library has a copy.

In defense of his church, Money entered into a long and disputatious correspondence with the editor of the Los Angeles Star (coincidentally the first newspaper published in Los Angeles as well as the printer of Money's book). Money's frequent letters also castigated the Reverend Thaddeus Amat, the first Catholic bishop of Los Angeles. Amat did not see the truth of Money's revelations.

In a small town where not much happened, the Los Angeles Star was happy to print everything the entertaining Money had to say. He had a lot to say. Leading his reformed church was only one of Money's professions.

Money was an armchair explorer who reasoned that the earth was hollow and that the oceans of the world ran into a crater at the North Pole, turned to steam in the fiery interior of the globe, and blasted from another opening at the South Pole. As Professor Money, he presented a representation of these findings to the County Board of Supervisors in the form of a map entitled "Wm. Money's Discovery of the Ocean."

Money, who didn't like San Francisco, thought the interior fires of the earth were unusually close below the brothels and barrooms of the city. He predicted a terrible cataclysm that would soon engulf the entire town and everyone in it. (Even cranks are sometimes right.)

Defender of his revelations, explorer, and also physician. As Dr. Money, he treated the sick (only four of his 5,000 patients had died under his care, he claimed). He advanced several systems of healthy living in his California Family Medical Instructor in 1855. It may have been the second book written in Los Angeles.

Story continues below

Crank theologian, crank philosopher, and crank healer, Money embodied nearly all the clichés about the seekers who would come to Southern California after him. He was a practitioner, it was reported (mostly by Money himself), of astrology, natural history, medicine, meteorology, theology, history, and cartography.

Guinn's essay says that Money eventually moved to San Gabriel "where he lived in a curiously constructed adobe house." After his death, "his books and papers were lost."

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading